News of the day: Elon Musk has a new toy. This will change Twitter for better or worse, depending on who you talk to and depending on what you think is better or worse for social media and its effect on what we think and how we live. Lots of bright people are trying to understand what is going wrong with societies all over the world. There’s a broad consensus that, somehow, social media is part of the problem, along with smart phones, political polarization, and economic globalization. Maybe it’s likes/dislikes that are making social media so potentially harmful. Maybe it’s bots that seem now to outnumber us real people. I’m told AI writing algorithms are getting so good that soon you won’t be able to distinguish between AI bots, sock puppets, mere trolls, and us genuine humans. One surprising new development of the Ukraine War: social media and disinformation is playing a greater role than ever before. Authoritarian regimes in the suddenly-so-relevant 1930s exploited radio as the preferred internal propaganda medium. Now it’s social media, useful both internally and externally. Remember the Monty Python skit about the joke that was so funny it killed? We now have viral social media posts and campaigns that can mobilize the masses, target individuals or groups, incite violence, and yes kill people.
Here’s the first question for this post: How deep is your involvement with social media, and how does it affect your view of the world, your view of the Church, your beliefs, and your sense of self or identity? I was an early adopter of blogs, a late adopter of Facebook, and a non-adopter of Twitter. Shows what I know. When I first saw Twitter, I thought it was a joke. Now it’s worth $44 billion.
Some people use social media to get news of the world, meaning they get a filtered, echo-chamber stream of news. Not good. Other people use it to stay in touch with family and friends and their local network (colleagues at work, neighbors, ward members). Me, I use Facebook primarily to interact with a variety of Mormon groups. I don’t use Facebook “socially,” and I don’t use Twitter at all. So I’m pretty shallow in terms of social media involvement. Even so, I spend too much time scrolling down Facebook. I can’t quite imagine how it works for people who get most of their information and conversation about everything filtered through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the others.
The latest book I’m reading to try and understand this whole mess — the whole disinformation revolution, highlighted by Trump and his Big Lie, Covid misinformation, and Putin’s election meddling and warmongering — is This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (PublicAffairs, 2020) by Peter Pomerantsev, a well-traveled scholar and journalist. The experience you and I have of social media is largely the personal side: we interact with real people and read some posts from news and media outfits. But the book makes clear there is a dark institutional and governmental side to social media, with thousands of young posters employed at click farms or bot farms (rows of cubicles in offices not much different from yours) to push this or that product, meme, candidate, phony news story, or government lie. We in the West have a belief that free speech and an open marketplace of ideas will produce positive social outcomes and that, in the large social forum where speech and media operate, true reports and valid arguments will over time triumph over false reports, bad arguments, and propaganda. That belief is looking increasingly naive. Let’s put it in simple terms: Free speech doesn’t seem to be working anymore.
Here’s a quote from the Pomerantsev book talking about the suddenly magnified role of disinformation in international and even military conflict. Keep in mind he’s writing about the Ukraine of 2020, when there was armed conflict in the Donbas region, but before the full-scale war of 2022 launched by Putin. Things have certainly intensified this year.
War used to be about capturing territory and planting flags, but something different was at play out here [in Ukraine]. Moscow needed to create a narrative about how pro-democracy revolutions like the Maidan [the successful pro-democracy movement in Ukraine in 2013-14] lead to chaos and civil war. Kiev needed to show that separatism leads to misery. What actually happened on the ground was almost irrelevant — the two governments just needed enough footage to back their respective stories. Propaganda has always accompanied war, usually as a handmaiden to the actual fighting. But the information age means that this equation has been flipped: military operations are now handmaidens to the more important information effect. It would be like a vastly scripted reality TV show if it weren’t for the very real deaths.This Is Not Propaganda, p. 106-7.
It’s not just war in which the “information effect” now outshines the substance of events. Domestic politics, too. Governors in Florida (latest: attacking Disney World) and Texas (latest: sending busloads of immigrants to Washington, DC) are more interested in generating plentiful media coverage for orchestrated political stunts than in actually governing their respective states. You could say the same thing for the pathetic election audits pushed and sometimes executed in various states following the 2020 election. They weren’t audits, they were political stunts. This all seems more like scripted reality TV than like reality. Pomerantsev is right. Powered by social media and even traditional mainstream media, the script is displacing reality if the script is pushed hard enough and effectively.
Now the LDS Church was late to websites and the Internet. The Church was late to social media. Is it late to the disinformation game? And is that good or bad? Governments, particularly authoritarian ones, are very involved and are getting very good at the disinformation game. Corporations and companies are getting very involved in the disinformation game to push their products and services. Here’s the second question, which seems quite relevant: Is the LDS Church involved in the disinformation game? And is that a good thing or a bad thing? That is, do they employ persons or use missionaries to roam the Internet and social media, leaving favorable comments and pushing ideas and opinions favorable to LDS views? Or use bots to accomplish the same thing? I’m thinking a step or two beyond just generating good PR by issuing positive press releases about the LDS welfare program or a Helping Hands operation. I’m thinking about a roomful of cubicles with LDS employees or missionaries making posts and leaving comments, possibly using their own names or identities or possibly using made-up names and identities. My gut sense is that if LDS leadership thought it was a good idea to start and continue to run the Strengthening Church Members Committee and thought it was a good idea to keep knowledge of the Hundred Billion Dollar Fund secret from the general membership and from almost all LDS leaders, the leadership likely thinks playing the disinformation game is a good idea.
On the one hand, the evolution of social media and the emergence of widespread (ubiquitous?) disinformation games highlight how outdated and ineffective is the traditional LDS missionary approach of knocking on doors are standing on street corners trying to strike up conversations with passers-by. One might say that if the Church is putting money and resources into a covert effort to play the disinformation game, that’s just doing what has to be done in 2022 to get the message out and build the brand. On the other hand, that seems like the wrong approach for a church to take, any church, not just the LDS Church. Missionary work should just be sharing the good news through traditional channels, and truth will prevail. The good sheep will hear the voice of the (Mormon) Shepherd. But that sounds a lot like what I called the suddenly naive belief (referred to earlier) that truth and good opinions will prevail in the free speech social marketplace of conversation and ideas of 2022. That’s just not quite how it works anymore.
A final observation. I am 100% confident that the permabloggers here at W&T are real humans. I am 99% confident that almost all of the comments that get posted at W&T are from real humans, not AI bots and not sock puppets acting on behalf of an institution or government — but that’s because we have a good spam filter. We get dozens, even hundreds, of comments a day that are part of the broad disinformation game but that never get posted to the public W&T site. Take a look at your email spam folder. Same thing. But social media doesn’t have a spam filter. In fact, it might be just the opposite. If you like conspiracy theories and questionable news posts, algorithms will know it and will fill your feed with other conspiracy theories and more questionable news stories. Note to Elon Musk: Twitter needs a spam filter. Social media needs a spam filter. Imagine what blog comments and your email inbox would look like without a good spam filter. Note to Carl Sagan: We need your baloney detection kit, now more than ever.
So you, reader, have two questions and an observation to chew on, bolded in the above discussion. But I’m hoping most of the discussion is directed to the last question: Is the LDS Church involved in the disinformation game? And should it be? Is it a good thing or a bad thing for a church to play the same disinformation game that so many actors in the public square are now playing?